Commentary on the Gospel of
Feast of Saint Matthew, Apostle and evangelist
For a change, let’s approach the readings of this feast by listening to the Collect prayer, which of course sets the framework and tone as we gather for worship. Here is the text of the prayer in the English version of the Roman Missal:
O God, who with untold mercy were pleased to choose as an Apostle Saint Matthew, the tax collector, grant that, sustained by his example and intercession, we may merit to hold firm in following you. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever.
It pays to slow down and listen attentively to the words of a Collect, and to meditate on the implications of the relationships the prayer presumes. As a community formed by praying the Lord’s Prayer together, we feel it in our bones that we are addressing the One that brother Jesus taught us to address as his Father — and now as ours. “Untold mercy”? Mercy that remains to be heard? If we hear it that way, it is a happy accident, as it sounds like a clever way to refer to an evangelist, i.e. a person who tells the Good News. True enough. But actually, we know that another meaning of telling is counting. So mercy untold is mercy beyond counting, abundant mercy. (The author of the Collect may also be aware of another irony: Matthew’s work involved literal counting—of coins! So that suggests another wordplay: Jesus was calling him to a grace “beyond counting” in still another sense.) But I digress.
Having characterized the Father as abundantly merciful we anticipate some expression of that amazing mercy and we get it, in a wonderful paradox. He chose as an Apostle (literally “a sent one" enabled to act with the authority of the Sender!) and, to our amazement, a tax collector! Anyone who had a first grade religion class knows that Saint Matthew was the tax collector among the Twelve. Yes, but now allow yourself the adult thought that a tax collector in the Palestine of Jesus’ day was properly called a toll collector who worked in a tax office collecting money at a border crossing. That meant he worked for a boss who ultimately worked for the hated Roman government. Think of what is going on here. If he was really chosen to act as somehow exercising divine authority, he had to leave Caesar to work for God. The tax collector is not a job description; for Matthew it was a situation (with a lot of ‘baggage’).
So far, the sentence is looking to the past. Now comes the request. This, after all, is a group petition, expressed by the presiding priest in the name of the community: Grant that … we may hold firm in following you. First let me explain the gap dots; they point to the language that describes our situation (one of blessing, not baggage). We are sustained by two things—Saint Matthew’s example and his intercession. The intercession is easy to explain but hard to realize; we have learned that saints pray for us because they are part of the Church Triumphant who know God directly, but remain connected with our part of the body of Christ and continue to love us with their intersession. The final clause of the prayer, set off as a separate sentence, hints at how this works.
But what about Saint Matthew sustaining us by his example? That’s the kicker. That is the payoff toward which the whole prayer was building. What is it about Matthew’s example that we are called to imitate? The very raising of that question takes me to a conversation I had during lunch recently with a fellow Jesuit, who follows the Vatican online coverage of the daily homilies of Pope Francis. He observed that Francis returns frequently to Caravaggio’s painting of the call of Matthew the tax collector. The painting hangs in a church in Rome, and pictures Matthew to the left in the semidarkness, his face illuminated by a beam of sunlight. He is at table with a normal-looking group of all ages, some already alerted by Jesus sudden presence, others still focused on the counting of coins. To the right, the figure of Jesus, catching Matthew’s eye and beckoning him to follow him, a call expressed visually by the gesture of Jesus’ finger. Another person is pointing to Matthew, as if to show Jesus the person he is looking for. And Matthew is pointing to himself, as if to say, “Who? Me?” He seems to sense that this is a call to more than a to a change of job description (from tax collector to preacher). He will soon learn that it is a call to a radical change of life (from being owned by Caesar, to companionship with Jesus). Indeed, Pope Francis uses a Latin motto hatched by the Venerable Bede (halfway in time between Matthew’s actual call and Caravaggio’s picture) to describe the call of Matthew (roughly rendered in English “calling with abundant mercy”) as the motto for his own papacy. And Francis speaks frequently of contemplating Caravaggio’s painting, with himself in Matthew’s place, targeted by Jesus’ finger inviting him to a continuing conversion, to a joyful surrender to a new way of belonging — really a new creation.